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Reissue CDs Weekly: Laura Nyro - American Dreamer | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Laura Nyro - American Dreamer

Reissue CDs Weekly: Laura Nyro - American Dreamer

Lavish box-set collection of important albums by ‘The Funky Madonna of New York Soul’

Laura Nyro, as seen on the cover of her 1968 album ‘Eli And The Thirteenth Confession’

“She is a 20-year-old white New Yorker who sings like a 55-year-old black lady from Mississippi.

The experts say she will do for soul pop what Dylan did for folk.” Lillian Roxon’s verdict on Laura Nyro appeared in her ground-breaking 1969 book Rock Encyclopedia, issued before Nyro’s third album New York Tendaberry.

In January 1970, Life magazine ran a feature on Nyro which was headed “The Funky Madonna of New York Soul.” By then, New York Tendaberry was out. Her follow-up, Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat, was being recorded when the article appeared.

Laura Nyro_American DreamerBoth descriptions demonstrate a unanimity about what Nyro represented: she was creating a form of soul music. But there was another point of agreement. Roxon noted “she wrote ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ for The 5th Dimension…giving them a major hit.” This cast Nyro as a back-room songwriter, a Jimmy Webb type. No matter that “Stoned Soul Picnic” was drawn from her second album, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession. Life went further: “right now [she] is probably the most successful pop composer around…it seems like the easiest way for other performers to have hits is to record her songs.” And hits there were: The 5th Dimension also did Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues”, Three Dog Night did "Eli's Comin'”, Barbra Streisand did "Stoney End". Frank Sinatra jumped on board too.

Life’s writer Maggie Paley got to grips with the Laura Nyro style which was proving so popular for acts looking for material. She writes “songs that blend gospel, rock 'n roll, jazz and blues (people also hear in them classical influences, from Schumann to Stravinsky),” said wrote. “Lyrics that are knowing, evocative, elusive, personal; and a voice full of soul and nuance. She [also] has songs that are more like progressive jazz, with lyrics that speak of pain as well as joy.”

So that’s one characteristic of Laura Nyro. She recorded songs which were covered. There’s another aspect. Her influence.

Laura Nyro_American Dreamer_Wedding Bell BluesMany were smitten. Amongst them was Todd Rundgren, who heard Nyro while he was in the Anglophile rock-pop band The Nazz. The experience changed his songwriting. “Hello it’s me” was evidence of the impact. In the book coming with the new American Dreamer box set, Elton John says “I used to listen to Laura Nyro in the late ’60s and she influenced my music and writing so much. She was the first writer I heard who didn’t follow verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, middle eight structures. She changed tempos and there were no rules for her which was absolutely spellbinding.” Joni Mitchell admits “Laura exerted an influence on me. I looked to her and took some direction from her. On account of her I started playing piano again [i.e. on Ladies of the Canyon and Blue].” It’s unlikely Carole King would have made Tapestry without a Nyro influence. Less stratospherically, the singer-songwriter Bill Puka issued an entire (and fantastic) Nyro-influenced album in 1970. A while later, no Laura Nyro, no Kate Bush.

But whither Laura Nyro herself amongst all this? What’s in the grooves of the eight-album set American Dreamer resolutely brings her to the surface. Collected are her 1967 first album More Than A New Discovery, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat (1970), Gonna Take A Miracle (1971), Smile (1976), Nested (1978) and a disc titled Rarities & Live Recordings which vinyl-ises bonus tracks from previous individual CD versions of the albums. It all comes in a slipcase, which slots into an outer case. Where there were originally lyric sheets or inserts, these are reproduced (no perfumed paper though). The accompanying book is written by cultural historian Peter Doggett. (An aside re this column’s title: Reissue CDs Weekly is a handle of convenience, one that’s recognisable as it’s instantly obvious what it’s about. Of course, as evident this week, vinyl archive releases are accommodated too: as well as albums, singles and EPs have been covered. If the title were altered to Reissues Weekly it’d probably be unclear what’s at hand, so Reissue CDs Weekly it is)

Laura Nyro_American Dreamer_with miles davisLaura Nyro’s first four albums are mind-bogglingly brilliant, despite More Than A New Discovery being brought to vinyl by music-biz men who separated her from her piano. Composition-wise, the writing and performances on each is more grand architecturally, more rococo than on its predecessor. Though very different musically, in this period only Tim Buckley is comparable in terms of pushing so far beyond conventional songwriting structure and incorporating non-pop forms into his compositions. Nyro’s was a hermetic and total sound-world. Miles Davis recognised this – when Nyro asked him to contribute to New York Tendaberry, he said there was no need. Nothing further was necessary. Whatever their takes on music, they were kindred, questing spirits and respected each other. Indeed, in June 1970 his challenging Quintet opened for Nyro at New York’s Fillmore East. The bizarre billing was due to their connection. (pictured right, Miles Davis with Laura Nyro)

Gonna Take A Miracle is brilliant in a different way. Recorded in Philadelphia with producers Gamble & Huff and singers Labelle, it paid tribute to the soul music she grew up with. Of course, she could make it intense. Doggett writes that her versions of “The Bells” and “Gonna Take a Miracle” “became vehicles for soul excursions of almost erotic intensity.” It’s wonderful, but Doggett notes that “reviewers reacted with bewilderment, at best, and sometimes outright hostility. The Hartford Courant declared that ‘Gonna Take a Miracle’ ‘should never have left the studio’. The Montreal Gazette said it was embarrassing; the Santa Cruz Sentinel awarded it a D-grade.”

Laura Nyro - American Dreamer_San DiegoAround this time, business bust ups and changes in her personal life impacted on Nyro’s forward motion. She split with manager David Geffen, who was setting up his Asylum label. She continued with Columbia rather than moving over to his new LA-based imprint. Still, he did get Judee Sill for Asylum – perhaps a surrogate Nyro? Anyway, he had Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell on his books so the days when his entire attention was focussed on Nyro were over.

Smile arrived after a period away from the music biz and although the songs are recognisably her’s, the performances were relatively muted, the compositional elaboration was reined in, and the glossy arrangements and session-player instrumentation were by rote. Still, its title track included a disarming reference to sexual pleasure: “the fire and the kiss of the cunt-tree night.” Despite her lyrical opaqueness, there was always a concurrent, contrasting directness and explicitness in what she addressed. “Poverty Train” from Eli And The Thirteenth Confession was unambiguously about heroin addiction. “Been on a Train” from Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat dealt with the death by overdose of her cousin.

In person, she was similarly open. Doggett writes “she named a single acid trip as the decisive episode of her youth: ‘my change of life’, as she put it. She had spent nine hours, she remembered, under siege from ‘creatures who were sort of half men and half rats’. Laura recounted that experience in more symbolic terms to the sympathetic Mary Campbell of Associated Press: ‘I met with the Devil, and he stood before me. Physically. In my own life. He was in my room. I had a battle with him and I chased him away. I was doing everything I didn’t believe in. I was 18. It was like make it or break it, and I made it. I rose to the occasion.’” Her own life fed her compositions.

Laura Nyro - American Dreamer_Smile adBut as Smile confirmed, some of the intensity evaporated over time. Todd Rundgren, who knew her, says Eli And The Thirteenth Confession “had the underlining emotional tension to the point of hysteria. That really gave the album its weight, and on top of it, the songwriting was incredible. Because of the success of that album she did gain greater freedom, but on no record that she made after that did she achieve the same sort of level of intensity.” She could maintain that pitch for only so long.

After Smile, Nested had rougher edges and was recorded with a mobile studio brought to her home. American Dreamer’s most straightforward album is also the set’s least commercially successful. Despite the lack of success as a single’s artist, her early albums had sold well – by January 1970, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession had sold 150,000 copies, New York Tendaberry 200,000. She also had a committed, sizeable following – the book goes into this very interestingly. Laura Nyro was not obscure or peripheral.

Following Nested, there were two more albums: 1984’s Mother’s Spiritual and 1993’s Walk The Dog And Light The Light. American Dreamer includes neither despite – like everything in the box – their rights being held by Sony. In April 1997, at age 49, she died of cancer. Archive releases of live and previously unheard material followed, as did (still available) CD reissues and audiophile vinyl versions of her albums. 

Manifestly, what's collected by American Dreamer needs to be heard. The mastering is great, with a warmth and a dynamic consistent with the analogue sources. The text in the nicely illustrated book compels and is insightful. She was influential and, out of her hands, Nyro's songs had their own lives. But it’s these albums which drill down into what made her tick musically. Herein then, Laura Nyro herself.


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